Events round-up

Writing workshops

Discover14Last autumn I led my first ever writing workshop in Downend library as part of South Gloucestershire Discover Festival. Since then I’ve been involved in other writing events, most recently joining forces with another local writer  Pauline Masurel.

Mazzy and I enjoyed working together so much that we’re teaming up again  for this year’s Discover Festival where we’re running a Get Writing workshop in two different venues.

Discover is such a great idea. There are all kinds of activites on offer at  little or no cost and most of them repeated so that there’s bound to be one close to you. They’re mainly in libraries or sports centres so there are no bus fares or parking charges to worry about either. It’s the prefect chance to try out a new hobby or brush up on an old one.

Our event will be a fun and informal workshop open to anyone who has some writing experience or who would like to make a start. If you have your diary at the ready, here are our dates and times.

  • Downend Library on Tuesday September 30th, 2 – 4pm
  • Bradley Stoke Library on Saturday October 25th, 2 – 4pm

Do look out for the full programme in your local library or check out Discover online where you can book your place.

Books are my Bag

booksmybagOn Saturday October 11th, Bristol Women Writers are joining Southville Writers for a local author showcase in Foyles Cabot Circus to celebrate the ‘Books are my Bag’ day which encourages us all to use our bookshops more.   The event will start at 2 pm and go on until 7 pm, so do pop in if you get the chance and hear some great local writers read and perform their work.




Thoughts on historical and literary fiction: blogging with Jane Davis

Is blogging on the decline? My own target of weekly posts (which I maintained for three years!) has long since gone to the wall and there are very few blogs I return to on a regular basis. I also notice that more and more authors use Facebook or other social media to make useful and informative posts alongside the more ephemeral (!)chit-chat.

I Stopped TimeSomeone who comes into this category is author-publisher Jane Davis whose FB posts are always worth a look and whose  I Stopped Time  – a prize-winning novel touching on the history of photography – I really enjoyed. But I then discovered that as well as an upbeat social media presence, Jane  has a blog with some extremely interesting and thought-provoking interviews with a wide variety of authors.



I’m delighted to say that as of today I have joined their ranks and you can read the interview here. It has some ruminations on historical and literary fiction as well as a plea for the categorisation of fiction. Do take a look and also at Jane’s previous interviewees all of whom have something interesting to say.

Thanks Jane, for the opportunity.


Jane in the ultimate tee-shirt



Only connect: sun and chemistry at Lacock

Lacock signResearch can take us to some odd places but a perfect English village on a perfect summer’s day was not a bad result  at Lacock Abbey where I was parked up and fuelled by a stiff Americano before the gates had even  opened for Sunday’s demonstrations of  early photography. Of course I’d visited Lacock before, including once since this whole thing began, but mindsets change, new things become significant and the brain becomes ready to reabsorb some of the detail that it just might have discarded along the way. Revision was long overdue. In fact a lot of what I saw and heard yesterday I did already ‘know’ from previous experience and reading, but seeing things in the round (camera obscura, mousetrap camera, photogenic drawings) always makes a difference, not to mention the vital ingredient – meeting experts and other enthusiasts.

Alex Burnham I had Victorian photographer Alex Burnham (in costume and also in the know) cornered very early on, which was maybe just as well in view of the rising temperatures.

He talked me through what was going on in his mysterious darkroom on wheels, , then it was on to see man-in-hot-blue-tent Richard Cynan Jones who explained the differences in the chemistry of these fab photogenic drawings.


photogenic drawingsIn fact what began as a quick chat became more of a pop-up conference (?) when Richard and I discovered a mutual interest in events in Edinburgh and St Andrews in the 1840s.
At this point I had more or less taken root in front of richard’s tent, with one passer by assuming we were – ahem – an item (!) Oops, sorry about that, Richard, but there’s nothing quite like stumbling on someone who cares about the same things, particularly if they are of no particular significance to the rest of the world!

calotype graphicTime for a lunch/hydration break during which I visited the museum (I particularly like this exhibit – no excuse for forgetting the process now) and amassed a few more questions for Messrs Burnham and Jones.


It was an absolute pleasure to be at Lacock yesterday and I’d like to thank not only Richard and Alex (please check them out, especially if you need a historic photographer any time!) but also the other NT staff and volunteers who set up the day and kept loads of adults and children informed and entertained.

Since seeing the wet collodion process demonstrated back in May, I’m struck more and more by how the medium of photography has been changed by the digital age and it’s good to know that historic processes are, if anything, increasing in popularity. Why? I’ll leave that for a more philosophical moment, but now that I’ve begun to revisit my research sources I think I might use this site to list a few more more of them. No point in keeping it all to myself.

To start the ball rolling here are a few that cropped up after Lacock and also after the Bristol Festival of Photography which somehow failed to get a blog post of its own.

Historic Photographic Processes:

Calotype Process (video reconstruction, Richard Cynan Jones on Lacock FB page)

Making a Salt Print (St Paul’s Photogrphy Centre on Youtube)

Early Photography equipment

Alex Burnham

Michael Schaaf, Wet Collodion Photography

Richard Cynan Jones and on Flickr

Richard Cynan Jones
Richard Cynan Jones









The Physic Garden: too good to dissect

‘The first time I saw Jenny Caddas she was taking a swarm of bees.’

The Physic GardenIt’s a great feeling when you fall in love with a book on the first page, or even the first line, and that’s what happened to me with The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska. The voice is that of William Lang, speaking in 1802. But if the scene he describes is idyllic, we soon know that this is not to last. William, now an old man, is going to tell us how from this fine beginning, everything went wrong. In fact things are already going wrong, because the Physic Garden, owned by Glasgow University and where William will soon be head gardener, is already in decline polluted by the expanding type foundry, trampled on by marauding students (plus ca change!) and largely ignored by a medical faculty hooked on the new science of anatomy. But amongst the professors there is one exception, Thomas Brown, a botany lecturer, with whom William strikes up an unlikely and life-changing friendship.

William’s story is an essentially private one of an old man seeing how in his younger days he was too naïve, but still cannot entirely regret that naivety. But as in the best historical fiction the individual becomes a prism through which we view the whole place and time in which he lived. We feel the pressures on a young man suddenly becoming the bread-winner for his large family, his anger at a feckless sister, his concern over a sickly child, his hero-worship of his fine new friend. On a wider scale we see his disquiet at the apparent supremacy of surgery over physiological remedies and the new forms of sickness and poverty arriving in the wake of industrialisation. We also glimpse the radicalism he will embrace in his later life.

But mostly this is a book about friendship and although the romance hinted at in the first line plays a part, William knows there are more enduring forms of love. He reflects most of all on how he and Thomas Brown forged a bond that transcended social boundaries but broke apart too violently ever to be mended.

The pace is measured, the language has an elegiac quality, but this is not a pretty story. It is beautiful and sad with just a touch of the macabre.  It also contains the seeds of hope and of William’s eventual redemption. True to the form of an old man, our narrator thinks nothing of jumping forward or back in the story to explain something, or just to delay the parts that pain him the most. But this book is all about the voice, and once William had my ear, I was never going to stop listening.

One day I might think about how this book achieves what it does, but for now I’m just going to sit back and admire it.



Research is freedom. I agree with Sarah Dunant.

I’m not quite sure what I expected from last night’s Historical Fiction Masterclass run by Writers and Artists, but with around fifty people crowded in a room in Bedford Square on a very rainy night in London town, it was more about the chemistry of the two presenters – Celia Brayfield and Sarah Dunant – than learning how to craft a novel.

Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant

So I’m pleased that I knew enough about the crafty stuff (in theory anyway!) to sit back and watch as the sparks flew and ideas were thrown around. What soon became clear is that historical fiction (and maybe all fiction?) involves a number of paradoxes:

Celia Brayfield

Celia Brayfield

  • the reader seeks reassurance in the similarity of past and present while marvelling at the differences
  • the writer must tap into the consensual understanding of a historical period as well as making it fresh( i.e authenticity is about convincing the reader rather than being totally faithful to historical facts)

When the audience were invited to nominate favourite reads other dilemmas came up, like the question of whether to use a voice that is clear and accessible to the reader or one that reflects the ‘otherness’ of the period/character. Books of each variety were equally loved.

As often happens with these things there was really one thing in particular I latched on to. As Jean Burnett says here, we can’t ever portray the past exactly as it was because we will always reflect it through the prism of our own understanding and beliefs (and because of this we can hopefully do it  – see above! – ) in a way that will appeal to our contemporaries. BUT Sarah Dunant made the point that even if we can never know exactly how people spoke to each other in a given period, or which sounds smells or tastes they actually noticed, we must give it our best shot, i.e. our guess must be the guess of an expert, and one that no one could actually prove wrong. Sadly there wasn’t much time for discussing how this conflicted with Celia’s preference for allowing fiction to dictate over fact in certain circumstances, so that’s another of the paradoxes we had to consider.

Going back to the research question, to be an historical expert is a daunting task for a non-historian but I sided with Sarah in appreciating that knowledge in this case is actually freedom. The writer must make choices in what to include or leave out but these choices should be based on knowing all there is to know. Research can throw up things that make us tear our hair out and sometimes feels like a straight-jacket, but it’s not. The more research we do the more stuff we have to use.

What we do with it then is up to us.



Cameras – in Lacock, Bristol and Kabul

Since my visit to Dimbola I’ve been thinking it’s time I got a bit more hands-on with the whole notion of early photography, or any kind of pre-digital developing and printing. I mean I once knew a novelist whose research involved learning to fly, a bit of dark room photography can’t be so hard!

W. H. Fox Talbot

W. H. Fox Talbot

Luckily the Bristol Festival of Photography has just got under way, with opportunities to see the wet collodion method and other ‘old-school’ techniques being used by contemporary artists. But the one event that really caught my eye mentioned Fox Talbot, the inventor of the first photograph (or calotype) as used by my own hero, and a camera that wasn’t too far from the kind of thing these Victorian pioneers would have used.


So that’s how I found myself last week at Paintworks in Bristol  where the Milestones Trust had an exhibition called Drop Stitch Drive (yes, knitting!) and where said camera was also on show.

I’m really grateful to Jeff for taking time out from the end of show party (nice grass skirt by the way!) to show me how the camera works. Jeff  explained that the kit (basically a light-proof box with baths for developing and fixing built-in) originated in Afghanistan where it is used for street photography, in particular for producing ID photos. I’ve since discovered that the low-tech camera (it has a lens but no shutter, the focus is determined by a sliding pole fixed by a clip) is also known as the Cuban Polaroid.

afghan box cameraNow the  kamra-e-faoree is threatened by the need for colour , but it’s a great reminder how long the  process invented  just down the road in Lacock in 1839 has lasted and how far it has travelled with only minor changes to the original process.

You can learn more about the Afghan Camera here.

Milestones Trust provides creative opportunites for people with disabilities. More of their camera pictures will be on show during the Bristol Festival in Easton during May.

Meanwhile here is some of the fabulous knitting from Drop Stitch Drive.


Funny where research can take you.

Next week, learning to fly?


Man writes woman: The Ginger Tree

ginger Tree coverWriting a character is always a leap of the imagination, so is it any more of one to take on a member of the opposite sex? Maybe not, and I certainly haven’t had a problem with creating and speaking for the odd romantic hero, but many years ago when I first read The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd I remember empathising so deeply with the heroine that I found it hard to  believe her story had been written by a man.

Now Bristol HNS have chosen the theme of ‘gender and character’ for a forthcoming meeting I’ve had a great excuse to skim through it again and look for what makes it so successful.

It’s the story of a naïve (but increasingly headstrong) Scots girl (Sorry about my battered copy. I never did see the TV version) who travels to China in the early 20th century to marry a military attache. She has a daughter with him but the marriage is a flop and she ends up having an illegitimate son by a Japanese General. Abandoned by all but one distant friend and deprived of the right to see either child, she is forced to rebuild a life for herself in Japan.

Picking it up after almost 20 years, I still can’t answer the question of what makes the telling of this story so compelling, but here are a few observations.

  1. I’d completely forgotten it was a first person narrative, written partly as a journal and sometimes in letters. The voice is consistent but the tone and the content alters, depending on who she is talking to. All of it a great window on character. Is the use of first person more persuasive? In this case I think it is (food for thought!)
  2. The opening which describes Mary’s long voyage to China in the company of a chaperone is prefect. We see how as she travels further east she is leaving behind not just her old life but also many of her inhibitions. We immediately get the contrast of what can be put in a letter home to Mama and what can’t. It sets the tone perfectly and illustrates the conflicts that are going to arise later.
  3. The crux of the story is her love affair with Kentara. Conducted in short episodes and almost total secrecy I’d forgotten that it takes up a tiny fraction of the book, but of course I remember it because its intensity dominates not just Mary’s life but also the narrative as a whole.
  4. Less is more also goes for the sex scenes which are all conducted with the sliding door firmly closed. Never has ‘he came to me’ born more meaning! Restraint (at least in the telling) is the order of the day here, which feels right for the period and the character, but there’s plenty of unspoken emotion bubbling under the surface.
  5. The book is a great illustration of elipsis, or ‘jump cut.’ The big scenes we are waiting for (husband Richard discovering she is pregnant but not by him) are often skipped completely in favour of the agony of the wait and the drama of the fall-out. Maybe the action scenes are the victims of the journal form (she can hardly write them as they happen) but it still works really well and we are taken through 40 years at just the right tempo. (Music to my ears as I struggle with a  thirty-year time-span.)

As well as Mary’s emotional journey the account of Japanese life and society is a rich and fascinating back-drop adn there’s lots of  history and culture to soak up. But it’s Mary’s heart that speaks to us, often between the lines of her everyday existence.  I just spotted this quote which pretty well sums it up.

By the end, it is the reader who sheds the tears his heroine has kept back for almost 40 years. — Nicholas Shakespeare, Sunday Telegraph

Looks like it’s now out on Kindle. You have no excuse!